Should we look for signs today that the Lord Jesus will return soon?
When it comes to understanding what the future holds, believers are the most informed people on the planet. Both Old and New Testaments teem with detailed information about the future, describing specific events, eras of time, significant individuals, and nations. God did not hide from Abraham, ‘the Friend of God’, Jas. 2. 23, the thing that He was about to do in pouring out judgement on Sodom and Gomorrah, Gen. 18. 17. Likewise, the Lord Jesus has entrusted to us as His friends the truth pertaining to the things that God is about to do to this earth, John 15. 15. We need to remember, however, that just because truth is revealed to us it does not necessarily mean that it is about us. This was true of Abraham who was only really affected by the coming judgement because his nephew Lot dwelt in Sodom.
Most unfulfilled prophetical truth in the Bible relates to two distinct future periods of time. Firstly, the seven-year-long tribulation period, Matt. 24. 4-28; Rev. 6-18, culminating in the personal return of the Lord Jesus to the earth, Matt. 24. 29-31; Rev. 19. 11-19; and, secondly, the thousand-year, or millennial, reign of the Lord Jesus immediately following His return to the earth, Matt. 25. 1; Rev. 20. 4. We do not have space to elaborate on these vast subjects, but the key to interpreting current events in the light of biblical prophecy is to understand that the tribulation period does not involve us since we will not be present on this earth when the tribulation period commences.
This is apparent from passages which tell us that, ‘God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ’, 1 Thess. 5. 9. In the context of this Epistle, Paul is speaking about the wrath of God poured out on the earth during the seven-year tribulation period. He assures the believers in Thessalonica that they will be removed from this scene prior to these events occurring through the personal return of the Lord Jesus to the air, when all believers alive on the earth at that time will be immediately transported to heaven, also called the rapture, see 1 Thess. 4. 13-18.1
Another important point to remember is that this present period of time, the church age, is described in the New Testament as a mystery, e.g., Eph. 3. 8-10; Eph. 5. 32. This means that although the truth about this age has now been revealed, the Old Testament is essentially silent in relation to the church age in which we currently live.2 This means that prophetical events and eras described in the Old Testament, including the tribulation period and millennial reign of Christ, are distinct from this present church age.
The implication of these points is that attempting to apply prophecies about the tribulation period or millennium to events happening today is both misguided and potentially damaging. Furthermore, attempting to identify events or individuals living now that might be important in the future tribulation period is highly speculative. A preoccupation with such activities can be unhelpful. Such was true of the Pharisees in Luke chapter 17 when they questioned the Lord Jesus as to when the Kingdom of God should come.
His answer to them revealed that their fixation with prophecy was a distraction away from more important issues, vv. 20, 21. For them, it was pointless to predict the arrival of the Kingdom of God by observing signs since the Kingdom of God had, in one sense, arrived. The King was already present among them. Their fascination with prophecy had diverted them away from focusing on the Saviour Himself. Similarly, we need to make sure that we are not guilty of diverting our attention away from Him.
One of the few exceptions in the New Testament regarding prophetical truth that does relate to this current period of time is provided by the Lord Jesus in Luke chapter 21 verse 24, although this is primarily about Israel and not the church. Here the Lord states that the inhabitants of Jerusalem ‘shall be led away captive into all nations: and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled’.3 This prophecy was fulfilled in AD 70 when the Roman general Titus destroyed Jerusalem and the temple and took many of the Israelites dwelling in Jerusalem into captivity. Since this time, during this present age, Israel and Jerusalem have been dominated by Gentile nations and even now the holy temple site is host to two Muslim mosques.4 The centrality of Israel to the past century of world events, including the formation of the state of Israel in 1948, is an important indicator that Israel as a nation will one day take centre stage in the final purposes of God. These recent historical events serve as a solemn reminder that the return of the Lord Jesus to the air to remove His people from the impending scene of judgement will take place very soon.
Please note that the return of the Lord Jesus to the air, 1 Thess. 4. 13-18, is quite distinct in character from the return of the Lord Jesus to the earth in judgement, 2 Thess. 1. 7-10.
The truth of the church is represented in picture form in the Old Testament However, specific revelation with respect to the Church of God being comprised of Jews and Gentiles, in which both have equal status, is hidden in the Old Testament.
Although not directly stated as being a prophecy, perhaps the seven churches described in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 are another notable exception, prophetically summarizing the history of the church age.
Jerusalem shall also be ‘trodden down of the Gentiles’ during the tribulation period, see Dan. 9. 27; Matt. 24. 15; Rev. 13. 15.